“Mortal Kombat” is on top of the world but its victory is far from flawless

Back in February, New Line Cinema debuted the long-awaited and twice delayed red band trailer for the new Mortal Kombat movie: this gruesome and action-packed first look delighted fans everywhere; soared to 116M views in its first week and set a new record as “the biggest red band trailer of all time” (dethroning the 4-day mark previously set by Marvel/Fox’s  Logan and Deadpool 2).

Mortal Kombat‘s impact on the gaming industry (and pop culture in general) has been colossal over the decades, but this new film, as over-the-top, gory and exciting as it may be, just doesn’t have the same thrill factor its previous video games and film adaptations do. And now that it’s officially been released, opinions are split down the middle.

With a 6.4 rating on IMDB and opposing Rotten Tomatoes scores (55% critics, 87% audience), Mortal Kombat raked in $22.5 Million at the domestic box office, making it the second-highest opening for a movie during the pandemic (with Godzilla Vs. Kong at the top with $31.6 Million). This alone is enough for the franchise to hold longevity, but its overall impact as a film is questionable, if not polarizing.

Liu Kang and Kung Lao
Mortal Kombat (2021)

In the early ‘90s, when Mortal Kombat first debuted as an arcade video game developed by Midway, it introduced many key aspects of the fantasy fighting series including the unique five-button control scheme and gory finishing moves called “Fatalities.”

Mortal Kombat was so successful it got eight video game sequels by 1999, all of which introduced or “levelled up” new characters and story modes. During the initial hype, Mortal Kombat also spawned two subsequent motion pictures (Mortal Kombat, 1995, and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, 1997).

The film’s ’97 sequel strayed quite a bit from the original and it wasn’t as well-received, either. Ultimately, we never got the third installment, but today, the original 1995 film remains a fan favourite and its sequel, a cult classic. Together, they’re arguably one of the main reasons fans have so eagerly awaited another trip into the realms of – what I’m coining – the “MKCU” (Mortal Kombat Cinematic Universe).

It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since Mortal Kombat has been adapted into a live-action film so you’d think big-budget production companies like New Line Cinema of Warner Media (in this case) would make better use of their resources when adapting big-name video game titles.

Recent and upcoming films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Shang-Chi have shown Disney/Marvel’s tight grip on modern martial arts blockbusters, but Mortal Kombat, while being martial arts-focused, brings something to the genre these other two films do not: a decades-long legacy of loyal fans.

These fans have played every game, watched every movie, bought every toy, and vividly remember role-playing their favourite Mortal Kombat characters with their friends in the schoolyard. The truth is, Mortal Kombat fans span generations, and Warner Media knows these fans are not only ready but more than willing to buy literally anything they release, whether that’s the new MK11 game (which is amazing, by the way) or this thrilling (albeit disappointing) new movie.

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Many hungry “MKCU” fans have been left starving for more (and perhaps that’s a good thing, considering the studio so obviously set up a sequel by teasing the debut of Johnny Cage), but was the wait for this new movie even worth it?!

For me, it’s a complicated answer. On one hand, this new Mortal Kombat film is everything you’d expect from a video game-turned-movie, but on the other, any and all laziness surrounding the lacklustre storyline and character development (of which should be fascinating lore) is in my opinion why we’re seeing so many disappointed and/or underwhelmed fans.

Warner Media had more than enough time to claim a “Flawless Victory” with this adaptation, but instead, they quite literally floundered it. Don’t get me wrong, this new Mortal Kombat film absolutely gets a lot of things right – the cinematography, fight choreography, CGI, settings, staging, lighting, and comedic relief all knock it out of the arena – but the heart of the Mortal Kombat franchise, whether it be in the games or the movies, has always been centred around the infamous “fight-to-the-death” tournament (something completely lacking in this new adaptation).

Mortal Kombat (2021)

“They didn’t even spell it right,” says newcomer Cole Young (Lewis Tan) to Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) of the Mortal Kombat tournament. In retrospect, that joke was one of the only lines Lewis Tan landed, as his entire character and portrayal were cringeworthy, at best. And what was with that Aquaman-inspired (plot) armour? Yikes. It makes you wonder what writer Greg Russo is going to do with the upcoming Resident Evil remake…

I will say the comedic relief in this film is quite strong (I loved the “Kano Wins” line, too), but I would’ve personally liked to see Kano (Josh Lawson) shine as an anti-hero without having to resort to stereotyping Asian men as feminine or yelling homophobic banter at everyone at the table in that one dinner scene. Otherwise, the majority of the comedy writing in this film was strong and added some spice to a truly bland, short script.

Finally, because this needs to be addressed, I think cutting the cinematic lifespan of characters like Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Nitara (Mel Jarnson) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), or barely utilizing big characters like Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), was a big mistake. Specifically in Mileena’s case, who’s a fan favourite yet completely wasted in this film (she glares her famously toothy snarl only once before getting slain by Sonya? And she wasn’t even wearing her signature colour purple?!) The shame. 

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Other dishonourable mentions include the benching of an astonishing Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), the short-lived but highly entertaining Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson), the less-than-stellar portrayal of Shang Tsung (Chin Han) – when compared to the iconic original portrayed by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa – and the unconventional ways these Earthrealm fighters, specifically Sonya, Kano and Jax, acquire their powers, or “arcanas.” It didn’t even make sense!

So does Mortal Kombat 2021 deliver the first blow in a hopeful movie series? Absolutely. Seeing Joe Taslim, Ludi Lin and Mehcad Brooks bring Sub-Zero, Liu Kang and Jax to life was one of the best things I’ve seen in a movie over the past year! But overall, this film wasn’t the “Total K.O.” it should have been. Instead, it was totally just O.K. And while some of the fight scenes are the most explosive they’ve ever been in a Mortal Kombat property, if this new reboot ever wants to be considered anything other than nostalgia-bait for ’90s kids, all these flatlining plot lines and barely-there character developments need to not only be changed but turned up to an MK11.

6 Popcorn Kernels / 10

“Get Over Here!”

Mortal Kombat Official Red Band Trailer

Mortal Kombat is now playing in select theatres and PVOD on HBO Max, Cineplex, Amazon Prime and Crave.